To judge from readers’ comments, I was, I gather, a figure of some merriment a few months back when I enthusiastically recommended the Pain Quotidien that had just opened in Central Park. Often accused of being unduly severe in my criticism, I finally found something to like and readers made fun of me for it. Well, I fear I will be the butt of even more abuse in response to this latest filing, wherein I intend to praise with equal energy the Shake Shack that has just opened at 182 East 86th Street, between Third and Lexington avenues.
This Shake Shack, the fourth incarnation of Danny Meyer’s winsome eatery, differs from its predecessors in Madison Square Park and at 366 Columbus Avenue at 77th Street and, most recently, in the Theater District at 300 West 44th Street on Eighth Avenue.
The new restaurant is divided into two parts, of which the more westerly is an enclosed structure, whose lean-to aesthetic and corrugated gray cladding closely resemble its predecessors. But it is a compromise between them, one of them — in Madison Square Park — being entirely outdoors, while the two others are entirely enclosed. For the eastern half of the new Shake Shack is an outdoor garden space.
The new restaurant is divided into two parts, of which the more westerly is an enclosed structure, whose lean-to aesthetic and corrugated gray cladding closely resemble its Madison Square Park and Upper West Side predecessors. But it is a compromise between them, one of them — in Madison Square Park — being entirely outdoors, while the other is entirely enclosed. For the eastern half of the new Shake Shack is an outdoor garden space.
What makes the new eatery so special for this observer is precisely what delighted me a few months ago in the Central Park’s Pain Quotidien. In both cases, I had been familiar with the site for decades, and nothing good or fun had been associated with either in living memory. Especially what is now the outdoor half of the new Shake Shack, there had had been for decades a concrete pit sporadically inhabited by a bicycle rental and some menacing skateboarders. It lay in the cracks between what is now the Lucida, whose official address is 151 East 85th, though it is mostly on 86th Street, and the truly ugly Park Lane, a 22-story gun-turret of a building at 185 East 85th Street that was designed without the slightest pretense to taste by the late H. I. Feldman back in 1965.
In more recent years, the concrete pit was locked behind an iron curtain so that it was bereft of even its skateboarders — a dead zone in the bustling thoroughfare of East 86th Street. So terminal and appalling was its appearance, that it was beyond the imagination of most area residents (myself included, before I recently moved to the West Side) that it could ever be transformed into something finer.
So imagine my delight a few weeks ago, to walk by this place for the first time in a month or two only to find it sprawling with happy, convivial, fashionable young people consuming those famous burgers and franks and frozen custards on a summer’s evening.
It seems nothing less than miraculous when taste and refinement reclaim even a small corner of Manhattan from the swelling tide of tasteless mediocrity. With the completion of the Lucida and the Brompton and now with the opening of the newest Shake Shack, this stretch of East 86th Street is looking far better than ever before.
James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, writes on the visual arts for several publications.